Where Is Interaction Heading?

By: Steve Zachmann, Contributor

When I play games, it’s typically been to escape the real world.  I think this holds true for most of us, and I think it holds true for more forms of entertainment than just games.  When we watch TV or movies, read books, listen to music; it’s all an escape to one degree or another.  Given that assertion, I’d like to pose an interesting question to you; would you like to play games if the interface were like that of the on in The Matrix?

In my scenario, things would work like this…  You’d jack into a game system by interfacing with a device that would completely take over your nervous system (without the annoying hole-in-the-head, thing).  It would completely immerse you in the game as a complete sensory experience.  You would see, hear, smell, taste, and feel everything in the game world as though it were completely real.

At first blush, my thought is always that this would be the most incredible way to experience a game.  The primary idea presented in The Matrix is one that has fascinated me since I first saw the original film, and the concept that we may could completely exchange our reality for a different on is something I’ve often been drawn to.  That said, there are some fundamental problems with the idea of full-immersion gaming.

First, and probably most significant, is the problem of pain.  Almost every game ever involves some form of physical pain for the character.  Even Super Mario Bros. seems kind of terrifying when considered from Mario’s position.  I’d rather not experiences death repeatedly; especially via falling, being burned alive, impaled on spikes, or mauled by all manner of strange creature.  But if you’re going to play a game that’s fully immersive, how do you ignore the feedback created by pain?

Games like Call of DutyDark Souls and even Madden become scary experiences when pain is considered part of the game.  Even if the pain were removed though, wouldn’t there still be the possibility of deep psychological scarring from fully immersive gaming?  Imagine living in Silent Hill.  While playing the current versions of the game sound appealing, the idea of being fully immersed in that world seems utterly awful.  There are many scenarios in gaming that feel this way, too.  Fully immersive gaming seems wrought with terrifying experiences.  The thing is, that’s where we’re headed.

I’m not sure that we’ll ever get truly 100% immersive experiences, but the current VR tech is certainly getting closer to that.  After all, the term VR does stand for virtual reality.  As we get closer to being fully immersed the games that we play, I wonder more and more about what the psychological effects of those games might be.  Again, I’m not sure that we’ll ever reach the level of immersion I described above, but even with the current level of technology, VR is too much for some people.

There are many who find the roller coaster demo on the Oculus Rift to be so disorienting that they can’t handle using the device.  That’s pretty incredible, when you think about it.  It’s both really cool, and really scary, because with just some earphones and a TV strapped to your face you’re already immersed enough that your physical body can revolt against the sensory input.  What happens when we take it further (because you know we weill).  What happens when someone creates a VR rape and torture simulator.  Even without the pain, will the experience be damaging?  Will this be the new way to thrill-seek?

These questions are obviously kind of out-there, but what’s interesting is that they become slightly less so with each passing year.  5 years ago we thought VR was dead, now it’s the future.  5 years from now, what will the nature of our interactive experiences be?  Will they be as immersive as The Matrix?  Do we even want that?  To be honest, I’m not sure, but I think that we’re bound to find out sooner or later.

What Makes A Game, A Game?

I love video games in almost all of their forms.  As I’ve aged, I’ve found more and more about the medium that I find interesting, from an artistic and technical perspective.  Making a great game is so complicated.  It combines story-telling – like a book – with visual and audible information – like a movie – and then allows us to interact with the world.  It’s a medium that, when utilized properly, allows the player to experience so much more than any other medium.  The reason for that though, is very simple to understand…it’s interaction.

What makes a game, a game is interaction.  Without interaction it’s a movie, plain and simple.  With that being the case, I’m interested in understanding what it is that makes interaction so important.  I think that starts with understanding what can be accomplished through interaction that can’t be accomplished any other way.

I think it’s important to first understand that interaction separates video games from movies by turning them into us.  Even when you’re playing a game with a defined main character, like Solid Snake or Geralt, their choices are still your choices.  The words they choose to say may not be 100% your choice, but their actions are still yours.  When you choose to kill an enemy instead of simply knocking them out, when you choose to save a damsel instead of collecting her head for a quest giver, when you do virtually anything in a video game, you’re affecting the world in a way that doesn’t happen in non-interactive media.  You become a participant when you had previously been a spectator.

What happens when you participate is that you begin to empathize.  For instance, when playing Metal Gear Solid 5, I was faced with the lethal vs. non-lethal choice a lot.  The lethal choice was almost always easier, but the non-lethal choice was far more rewarding.  First off, I could recruit the enemy.  Second, it would raise my heroism level which helped the staff I already had.  Something else happened though; I began to feel like it was wrong to kill the enemies.  The thing is, I wasn’t killing (or not killing anyone).  Even when we completely discount the fact that this was a video game and thus wasn’t real, it still wasn’t me doing performing the actions, it was Snake.  And yet it felt like me.  I’m not Snake, but when playing Metal Gear Solid 5 I can absolutely empathize with the choices he/we have to make.

My point here is that the empathy we feel while playing games is a huge part of what makes games so engaging.  It does more than engage us, though.  Interacting in games, and the empathy it invokes is important for more than just entertainment.  “Games” can be so much more, as products like Papers Please can attest to.  Experiences like that use the idea of a game loop to convey the incredibly uncomfortable feeling of what it must be like to live in situations that would otherwise seem unfathomable to us.

I feel so strongly about this that I feel that there should be more interactive experiences created for the sole purpose of making us feel uncomfortable and that we should subject ourselves to these experiences often.  I wonder how many Germans would have gone along with the Nazi regime if that had been able to experience what it was like to be a holocaust victim.  That’s an extreme example, for sure, but I think it helps illustrate the point.

Interaction helps us to empathize, and empathy helps us to grow.  Understanding how others feel and why they feel that way is something that cannot and should not be discounted.  To that end, I believe that games create an environment that allows us to do just that; experience situations we otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t.  Those experiences can help make us better people by invoking emotions that we didn’t know we even had the capacity to feel.

I’m not saying that movies, television, and books have no place in media.  That’s certainly not the case.  Games however, have the unique ability to bridge the gap between spectator and participant, and in doing so, offer an entirely unique perspective on exactly who we are as people in a way that no other type of media can.  As games progress, it’s my hope that they push towards this end.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon the games we love today, but I hope that interactive media grows beyond simply shooting and fighting and begins to realize it’s potential as a means to experience more than we can in our own skin.

Pop-Quiz: Test Your Football Knowledge In Anticipation Of Super Bowl Sunday

The teams are set; the big game is once again upon us.  Super Bowl 50 will feature the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.  As we wait the agonizing weeks before the game to start, why not test your NFL knowledge with this quiz?

Why Does “Censorship” Only Bother Us When Boobs Are Involved?

By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief

The word “censorship” is getting thrown around in video gaming circles a lot more than usual lately, and most of the outrage seems to focus on four specific games Continue reading “Why Does “Censorship” Only Bother Us When Boobs Are Involved?”

Where Does Mobile Gaming “Fit”?

I’ve been doing a lot of mobile gaming lately; a lot more than I ever have before.  And to be clear, when I say “mobile gaming”, I mean iOS/Android gaming, not traditional handheld gaming.  As I’ve spent more time playing mobile games I’ve started having more fun than I expected too, and as such, started wondering what the future of mobile games looks like.

For the longest time I had a serious dislike for mobile gaming.  When the iPhone was new, I enjoyed the occasional game, but found the nature of the market place to be largely populated with absolute garbage.  While that’s still the case, there is a considerably larger group of quality games than ever before.  Some of the games aren’t just “good”, either.  Several are worth serious consideration for critical awards.  I still have a lingering question about what the mobile market really is to the gaming world, and where it fits into the future of gaming.

If we’re going to discuss the future of mobile gaming, then we have to start by admitting the obvious…mobile gaming is a serious platform now.  Kids today play games on their mobile devices the way I played games on my NES.  When they’re 30 they’ll as much nostalgia for Angry Birds as we did for Super Mario Bros.  That may not sit well with you, but your parents probably hated that you liked your video games more than your Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets; that’s just how life works.  Kids today will have their gaming purchased influenced by the mobile market for their entire lives.  Mobile devices aren’t going away, and the kids that use them as gaming machines will only do so more as time goes on.

Now that we’ve established that today’s mobile gamer kids will become tomorrow’s mobile gamer adults, it’s time to figure out what exactly the mobile market means for the gaming industry as a whole.  I see the mobile market’s role in gaming much like TV’s role in visual entertainment.  Most of us would prefer to see Star Wars and Batman on a big fancy movie-theater screen.  We’re fine watching reruns of Friends on our TV, though.  In the same way, the Halo‘s, Uncharted‘s and Call of Duty‘s of the world will continue to have their place on consoles and PCs, but games games like TellTale‘s offerings, turn-based RPGs, and even remakes, will have an increasingly large stake in the mobile market.

If you’re a grown up and you’re reading this, then you probably grew up with a controller, not a phone, in your hand.  If that’s true, then there is probably a part of you that wishes for this mobile-centric future to go away.  Unfortunately for you, I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I’m not saying that you have to simply give up on “traditional” gaming, but I think it’s important to understand that more and more quality gaming content is being produced with mobile devices in mind.

Mobile gaming will almost certainly always be relegated to smaller scale games; at least until we’re all wearing 4th generation VR devices Minority Report style.  The thing is, once you cut through the admittedly enormous amount of terrible mobile games, there are some true gems out there.  It takes more to find them than it does on other platforms, at least for now, but there are still plenty of reasons to be positive about what mobile gaming has to offer.

The Results Are In: The Game Worlds YOU Want To Live In.

This week’s poll winner; the world you’d all most like to live in…Animal Crossing.  You’re all incredibly hilarious.  Have fun living in a world where you have to pay a mortgage to live in a house that’s just a smaller version of a real life house you already live in now.  At least you can fill it with a bunch of low-poly, not stylistically interesting junk.

Anyway, moving on to choices that actually deserve to win, second place goes to Mass Effect and Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball.  Mass Effect is my personal choice, so I totally get that, and even though I put it on as a joke, the latter choice has a certain…allure.

There were also several votes for The Elder Scrolls, with Fallout and (surprisingly) Mortal Kombat following right behind.  Resident Evil, Borderlands, The Legend of Zelda, and Minecraft all tied with a few votes.  The rest of the pack got none.

Also, there were more write in votes for this poll than any I’ve run, so I should definitely mention those.  They included: Mega Man Legends, Pokemon, Harvest Moon, God of War, Need for Speed, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy.  I should also mention that I thought about putting FF on the list, but I didn’t want to include all of the games separately but since most of them exist in different worlds, I didn’t want pick only one.